The Complete Guide to Refinishing Hardwood Floors DIY

By Cezar

Some do-it-yourselfers are intimidated by the thought of refinishing hardwood floors. Others are excited. Most fall somewhere in between.

If you fall into any of those categories, then read this guide on how to refinish hardwood floors. We lay out all the basic steps from sanding to applying the finish to the wood.

Step 1: Determine What Type of Floor You Have

“But I already told you that I have hardwood floors,” you say. “That’s why I’m here.”

Well, that may be, but things aren’t so simple. Laminate hardwood flooring has gotten so advanced that it’s often difficult to tell it apart from solid (aka, “true”) hardwood flooring. Even tricker to tell apart from true hardwood floors is engineered hardwood flooring. Engineered hardwood flooring has a thin layer of real wood layered over top of plywood or something similar. So, it’s hardwood, but over on the top.

None of this is to imply that there’s anything wrong with laminate or veneer flooring. It’s only to say that those types of floors don’t get treated the same as true hardwood floors.

Determining if your floor is laminate is generally easier once you decide to really scrutinize it. Determining if your floor is veneer might require you to find a place where you can see beneath that top layer. You may need to pull up a vent or a baseboard, anything that can give you a chance to see beneath the veneer.

  • Laminate floors can’t be refinished in the proper sense of the term. There are chemical treatments that can be applied, but many experts advise against this process. That’s your call, though, but it’s a much different thing from refinishing hardwood floors.
  • Engineered hardwood floors can be refinished, but you have to determine how thick they are in order to know if you can do so safely. That is also a concern with traditional hardwood floors, of course, but engineered hardwood has less room for error.

Step 2: How Thick Are Your Floorboards?

Two factors apply to the current thickness of your floorboards. First is the original thickness of the boards, and second is the number of times that they’d been refinished already. Refinishing usually includes sanding, a process that removes some of the board. With each sanding, the boards get a little thinner.

You’re not going to want to actually pull up a floorboard to inspect it (we assume, anyway). So, you’ll need to find a place where you can expose the interior. If you pull up a vent or pull back a baseboard or something similar, you can probably get a look at the full board thickness. A general rule of thumb is this:

  • Engineered hardwood floors should have about 1/8 inch of veneer left to safely refinish them.
  • Solid hardwood floors should have about ¾ inch of veneer left to safely refinish them. Or, sometimes this is measured the number of times that your hardwood floors have already been refinished, with 6 or 7 iterations being the generally accepted maximum number of times that a floor can safely be refinished.

Step 3: Should You Recoat or Refinish Your Floors?

Because floors can only be refinished a certain number of times (and because each job costs time and money), you should first be sure that you can’t get away with a simpler and less invasive recoating.

Recoating hardwood floors means roughing the floor up a with a sanding screen and applying a new coat of finish. It takes much less time and money and removes much less material than a true refinish. The drawback is that a recoat won’t take care of heavier wear or damage the way that a refinish will. To determine which approach is best, try this:

  • Tape off two 6 × 6 areas of your floor. One should be an area with the heaviest wear and damage, and the other should be an area that gets frequently exposed to cleaning products (below a window or close to a table, for instance). Areas frequently exposed to cleaning products will often absorb those products and resist a new coat of polyurethane finish.
  • Recoat these sections and see if the final product is sufficient.

Before doing this test, remember that this work will wear down these sections of your floor. This will leave behind visible squares that are different from the rest of the floor. So, only do this if you are certain that you are going to do the rest of the floor.

If the recoat looks like it will be sufficient, then you will probably want to go with that option. It requires much less sanding, less time, and less money. It also wears down the floor less.

If the recoat looks like it won’t be sufficient, you’ll want to move to refinishing your hardwood floors.

Step 4: Refinishing Process

Here, we will share a brief guide on how to refinish hardwood.

  1. Prepare your room: We can’t just dive into the sanding and staining. First, we’ll need to move out all of the furniture, seal up all vents and similar portals, cover doors with plastic sheeting, and remove baseboards and moldings.
  2. Clean the floor: Vacuum and use tack cloth or something similar to get the floor clean and ready for work.
  3. Sand the floor: Sanding is often the step that people enjoy the least (if they enjoy any of the steps at all!). You’ll need to rent a drum or orbital sander and a detail or palm sander (for finer, detailed areas). You could conceivably do the sanding entirely by hand, but few people choose to go that route these days. Fill holes with filler or putty. Clean again.
  4. Stain the floor: Think this step through. You don’t want to stain yourself into a corner and find yourself stuck with deciding between camping out in a fume-filled room until it dries or walking across your newly stained hardwood floors and ruining all your hard work. There are many varieties of stain, and the one you choose will determine the color and “energy” of your room. Take your time to find the right one for you.
  5. Apply protection to the floor: Finally, you’ll need to apply a layer of protective finish over the top of the dried stain. Many varieties of finish are on the market, but polyurethane is the most common choice. Polyurethane offers great protection at a reasonable price. Still, there are other factors to consider, so do your research to find what’s right for you. Check the instructions on the product you choose, but generally you’ll want to wait 24 hours before walking over your newly finished hardwood floors and 72 hours before placing furniture over them.


Refinishing hardwood floors yourself is perfectly doable, but as you can see from the steps above it’s also time and labor intensive. There’s also a risk to wearing down your floors more than they need to be. That’s why many people choose to hire professionals to do the work.

If you do elect to do the work yourself, however, you can follow the steps outlined above. Work carefully, and you can create a beautiful refinished hardwood floor for your home. Good luck!